By Erin Wyble Newcomb
Illustrated by Annie Dwyer Internicola
After nearly seven years, the cats are pretty well adjusted to the children. As I like to remind them (the children, that is), the cats came first, and they have lived with me longest. Those first few months of newborn squalling and toddler crawling were an adjustment for our pets, but as our children aged, we kept teaching them how to respect the cats. It’s a lesson that’s served us well in all our relationships, feline and human. Too often, I feel conversations about parenting and respect center on demanding respect from children; I’m using my cats and my children here to talk about mutually respectful relationships. Here are a few things I’ve observed.
All Creatures Have Boundaries.
My elder daughter loves to tote one of our cats around the house, and, for the most part, the cat is compliant. There’s a squeak kitty makes when she’s had enough, and we enforce this boundary. It’s her no, and our daughter understands that to love the cat, she has to respect that no. Of course there are always exceptions—like when a cat or a child needs to visit the doctor and doesn’t want to but respectful relationships require us to honor boundaries. It’s the same reason that sometimes the cat wants to lay on my daughter’s book while she’s reading, and my daughter says no. Respecting boundaries, our own and others’, means knowing where one self ends and another begins, and not imposing ourselves on others.
All Creatures Need Care.
For the cats, that’s fresh food and clean water and regular vaccinations and the occasional combing (a task my four-year-old loves to perform). We show them respect by meeting their basic needs without feeling entitled to anything in return; it can be a tough lesson for parents, that we respect our children by caring for them, all the while knowing that they don’t owe us their love. It be- comes a dynamic between care and power, where my husband and I are teaching our children that those with more power care for those with less. Not because they’ll owe us or thank us, but because we believe that kind of respect makes for a better world.
All Creatures Deserve to Be Loved for Themselves.
It would be unfair to disparage my cats because they fail to behave like dogs. Granted, I think they’d be napping indifferently in a sunbeam (or on a pile of clean laundry), so I doubt they’d take up the issue with my family. My point is that when parents ask children to respect them, we need to look closely at how we move about the world. Are we respectful of others? How do we treat creatures we see as weaker, or those who can’t give us anything? How generous is our love? How conditional? We can’t demand respect from any creature, no matter how much we may deserve it. What we can do, in our families and beyond, is be respectful: to honor boundaries, provide care and love unconditionally. It might not make all our relationships as warm and fuzzy as my cats, but it’s a strong foundation. █